It is generally believed that ‘animal rights’ is a modern concept and largely irreconcilable with the development of Christian ethics.
However, the term was adopted by a considerable number of outspoken clergy before the arrival of the modern animal rights movement. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century both Abraham Lincoln and The Times newspaper were at ease with the concession, for the latter declared on October 18th, 1860: “England is the first, perhaps even now the only nation, in which the rights of animals are recognised – and we mean nothing more by the term than the right of animals to immunity from unnecessary suffering and wrong.”
The gurus of contemporary animal rights and liberation theory have invariably acknowledged an earlier and all but forgotten systematic treatise by Henry Salt which was published in 1892: Animals’ rights considered in relation to social progress. However, Salt and the Humanitarian League which he largely led for 28 years were not without influence in their day.
Animals’ rights advocacy, in turn, became an unpopular but not unknown subject of theological attention among clergy and its espousal extended to senior prelates which (perhaps paradoxically by today’s standards) transcended any tacit obligation to embrace vegetarianism, or even anti-vivisection values on absolutist terms.
Perhaps the current weight of inference and ideology has discouraged clerical association with ‘animal rights’ causes. Here, at least, is a far from complete representation of historical concerns which may contribute to ethical consideration in a slightly more receptive era.
John M. Gilheany
Author, Familiar Strangers: The Church and the Vegetarian movement in Britain (1809-2009)
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UPDATE: August 18th 2011
A selection of earlier animal rights affirmations from Christian priests and ministers is available on the comprehensive Animal Rights History archive which includes contributions from: John Hildrop (1742), Richard Jago (1753), Humphrey Primatt (1776), Anon rector (1787), Herman Daggett (1792), William Gilpin (1796), Thomas Young (1798), Legh Richmond (1801), William Bingley (1803), Thomas Moore (1810), James Plumptre (1816), Anon clergyman (1824), Richard Watson (1826), William Hamilton Drummond (1838), Caesar Otway (1840), William Henry Channing (1848), James Drummond (1870) and T.B. Thater (1871)
Further insights are presented in the CreatureQuotes anthology of humane values which includes animal rights recognition from clergymen such as Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, Rev Dr. Frederick H. Hedge, Rev. H. Bernard Carpenter (2004), Father Thomas Berry (2006), Kim Fabricius (2008) and Rev. Dr. Marc A. Wessels